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Dissecting Hu Jintao's Big U.N. Speech

There's been a lot of climate-related gabbing at the U.N. today, and Neil MacFarquhar has a handy rundown in the Times. One of the few dribbles of quasi-news, it seems, was that Chinese President Hu Jintao pledged to curb the growth of China's carbon-dioxide emissions by a "notable margin" by 2020. (His speech is here.)

What, pray tell, would that entail? Sadly, Hu didn't fire up a PowerPoint presentation—no exploded pie charts, no hard numbers—and he didn't even say if those "notable" targets would be legally binding. But if I had to guess, odds are he means China will significantly reduce its "carbon intensity"—the ratio of carbon emissions to GDP—in the coming years, so that absolute emissions could still keep going up as the country grows, but the rate of increase will slow and the country will become far more energy-efficient. This is pretty consistent with what observers have expected from China thus far, though the arcane details will be important.

Oh yeah, also Hu pledged to get 15 percent of the country's energy from nuclear or nonfossil fuels by 2020 and expand the size of China's forests by 40 million hectares. Now, planting trees sure is nice and all, but as a Washington Post expose revealed bin 2007, China also plays a crucial role in abetting illegal logging in old-growth forest areas like Indonesia and Burma. Shouldn't putting a stop to that be a higher priority? As it happens, Matthew Russell Lee put this question to China's forestry minister, Jia Zhibang, who punted and said that the consumers of the timber products were ultimately responsible for all this. Which, suffice to say, is an absurd reply.